A Horse Walks into a Bar

by David Grossman

Other authors(Translator) Jessica Cohen (Translator)
Book, 2017



Call number




New York : New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2017


"A stand-up comedian recalls some of his darkest moments and traumatic memories from childhood on stage in front of a live audience"--

User reviews

LibraryThing member Carmenere
It's often said that many comedians are rather sad people. Comedian Dovaleh Greenstein is no exception. He chooses the night of his 58th birthday to unload his inner turmoil to a packed house. He begins with his usual shtick but it quickly becomes very personal. Like many patrons in the audience, I
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too wanted to walk out. It's not an easy read, it's actually quite depressing yet it gives one pause to stop and consider how humanity can crush one's spirit or save it.
I read this book as one of the selections in the Booker International Longlist.
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LibraryThing member thenumeraltwo
White hot fury of an onstage breakdown. Bar the occasional narrator flashback, 200 pages told straight from the club; comedian, audience and judge. Which was a neat touch, writing the story's judge in the first person.

_Addendum_ I've now watch Hannah Gadsby's searingly brilliant Nanette. Not a
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breakdown, but as hot a flame held to the audience — to me — in the search of humanity. It explained the grammar of jokes to give me the words to articulate the repeated motif of Horse walks; jokes have tension and release. Stories have tension, release and an ending. This is a story told through looping jokes.
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LibraryThing member TheEllieMo
A Horse Walks Into A Bar is narrated by a retired district court judge, who out of the blue receives a invite from a stand-up comedian, Dovaleh G. The judge and Dovaleh had been childhood friends, but have not spoken to each other for more than 40 years.
The narrator talks us through Dovaleh's
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routine, and the audience's reactions, both as a group and individually, and fills in some of the gaps of the history that Dovaleh recounts during his routine. What starts as a normal stand-up routine soon becomes something much more personal, as Dovaleh reveals key events in his life that shaped the man he became. To some extent, what the audience (and us the reader) are seeing is a man on the brink of a breakdown.
In a way, it's a car-crash of a book - you know it probably won't end well but you can't tear yourself away. But I mean that in the best possible way. Grossman's (and Cohen's) skill here is to introduce to us a rather vulgar, obnoxious comedian, and then slowly draw us into his story, and make us really care about him, really want to know what happens to him. It's a book that can be read in one sitting - but you may need a bit of a break from the rollercoaster of emotions.
Touching on racism and anti-Semitism, bullying, anxiety and mental health, this is a hard- hitting book, but an immensely rewarding read.
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LibraryThing member Kristelh
A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman, translated by Jessica Cohen and on the short list for the Booker International is about a stand-up comedian who is playing in Netanya, Israel. He has asked a friend from school days to be there. In this story told in dialogue of a comedian and the POV of
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his friend from school days we the reader slowly learn about the man's life and a bit about the politics of Israel which sounds like their is a need to be politically correct. The narrator is the friend, a retired judge who is there to watch the comedian and to give him some feedback.

The structure of the story being told through the judge who is witnessing his old school friend on stage pour out his life to all. I appreciated the look at life in Israel that is portrayed in the book. The story is told in little jerks of emotion in between one liners that one would expect from a stand up comedian. I also think that comedians could be the saddest people that we often use humor or other emotions to cover our sadness. The characters that are fully developed are the comedian, Greenstein and the judge Lavar. There are a few other characters but we only see them through the judges eyes so we know nothing about them except what he observes or what the comedian tells the audience. I read t he book in a couple of days so it was fairly easy to stay interested in the book. The book was nominated for the short list the 2017 MAN BOOKER INTERNATIONAL PRIZE. It is stand up comedy so there is some sexual content in the jokes and the comedian also attacks political correctness and the Palestinian issue, but mostly this is a story about betrayal, loss and survival. Rating 4.42
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LibraryThing member rocketjk
In Israel, Avishai Lazar, a retired judge still grieving the death of his wife, receives a call from a barely remembered boyhood friend he hasn't spoken to in decades. The friend is Dov Greenstein, a standup comic somewhat past his prime but still able to fill a club. Greenstein has a request, that
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Lazar come to his next performance and then tell Greenstein what he's seen. Why, after so many years? Lazar is at first reluctant, but eventually agrees. But the performance, when it begins, quickly veers from comedy to an monologue of reminiscence of teen-years trauma, flecked with humor, yet increasingly harrowing, with Lazar, within his narration of the story, filling in details of his own. Sounds like fun, right? What makes this such an entirely noteworthy book is the universal humanity that Grossman works into the stories spun by Greenstein and, to a lesser extent, Lazar. Greenstein's story-telling pulls us along, even as most of his audience, expecting comedy rather than self-analysis, becomes resistant and angry. And while the story is necessarily tied to its Israeli locale, with references made to occupied territories and relations with the Palestinian people, this is ultimately a riveting foray, as noted above, into the human condition.
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LibraryThing member alanteder
Insult comic works out his childhood issues during the course of a one-night stand-up routine while being witnessed by an estranged childhood friend whom he has invited to the show.

Picks up about halfway through once it gets to the issue of the main story, but was otherwise a bit of a slog for
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The parrot joke was pretty funny though ;)
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LibraryThing member thewanderingjew
A Horse Walks Into a Bar, David Grossman, author; Joe Barrett, narrator, Jessica Cohen, translator
The book is well written, but I don’t think it will be universally enjoyed. I believe it is for a narrow audience that is familiar with Jewish humor and its universal ideas about guilt and shame. A
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stand-up comedian in his mid fifties, Dov Greenstein, is performing in a small nightclub that seems a bit second rate, in Netanya, Israel. He has invited a former school chum, a judge, to attend his performance as a special favor. He has not seen Ashivai Lazar for years, but he has followed his career. Dov has asked Ashivai to come to his performance and tell him honestly how he perceives him. In the audience, possibly by chance, there is also a woman who was a neighbor of his from his childhood. She is now a manicurist and a medium. He calls her Pitz. Each of these three characters has a defining characteristic which is important to the story. How does each of them “see” Dovela? How do they see themselves?
I did not find the story funny, although it features Dov’s entire stand up routine of the night. Interspersed between jokes Dovela relates’s, the background of his life. The two characters who knew him are privy to some of his memories and are affected by them, but the audience experiences frustration when the jokes stop and the monologue grows serious. Some get up and leave, some become drawn to his story. Readers will experience the same ups and downs. All will be forced to think about how things are perceived and how that perception shapes their lives and the lives of others.
This odd little book examines how we all see each other and ourselves. It examines how that perception effects how we all turn out. The humor is often dark and inappropriate. Dr. Mengele, “the angel of death” from the Holocaust Concentration Camp, Aushwitz, is referred to as his family doctor. His mother was a survivor who did not survive wholly well. It is intimated that she is emotionally unstable. Dov walked on his hands to escape from reality and to protect his mother from the stares of others. It drew attention away from her making him the subject of ridicule, instead. It offered him a way to escape from his life, as well. Upside down, he was smiling, not frowning. His father was a brute who physically abused him.
Dov’s jokes and language are crude, even vulgar. His physical description is unpleasant. His performance concerns subjects we don’t usually consider funny. He jokes about cancer, the Holocaust, death, sex and a horse that walks into a bar, which is a joke begun by a driver who is taking him to the funeral of someone who has not yet been identified to him, but he knows there has been some kind of a tragedy he will have to experience against his will.
All three of the people that the story focuses on have had difficulties because of how people saw them, without really seeing them. They made people uncomfortable. Was this performance meant to expose the shared frailties of everyone? He wonders what people think of when they see him! Do they really see him? Do we all wonder about that? I would describe the book as a comedy/tragedy. The reader will decide which takes precedence.
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LibraryThing member cmt100
The book was compelling--I read every page--but I didn't enjoy any of them.
LibraryThing member Lunarreader
a very weird book, very well written, nicely composed but ... it also breaks you down, slowly, determined, with glimmers of hope in between, but ending dramatically. And it's about stand up comedy!
The story doesn't let you go, so be warned. But read it, it's great, emotional, tender, compelling,
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sometimes witty and funny but .... is comedy always ending happily?
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LibraryThing member alexrichman
Another award-winning novel that left me cold. I read this on my way to the Edinburgh Festival and couldn't help but feel there were two central problems. Firstly, Grossman's attempts to imitate a stand-up's patter just don't ring true. Perhaps it's the translation, but it felt like a bad pastiche
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of shtick, and not in a funny way. Secondly, the notion of an on-stage break-down is so well-trodden in actual stand-up that building a novel around it seems rather old hat. Sure, the crux of the novel throws up some interesting questions about friendship, and family, but I found this a real slog to get through. I dare say that's partly the idea, given how many of the audience walk out during the comedian's set, but I wouldn't recommend this to others.
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LibraryThing member Eyejaybee
I am still musing over this book. I found it simultaneously very uncomfortable and fascinating, and it was certainly marvellously written. The critics’ comments littered across the cover reflect that quandary. The Financial Times offered up, ‘A work of sombre brilliance and disquieting rage’,
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and it would be difficult to improve upon that.

The novel recounts a performance by Dovaleh G, a veteran stand-up comedian at a club in a small town in Israel. Dovaleh G is one of those comedians who thrives upon insulting as many members of his audience as he can, and as his act gets under way he wastes no time in slagging off the town in general before launching several very personal barbs at individual members of the crowd. This, of course, goes down very well with the crowd in general, even though the individual victims are naturally upset.

It gradually becomes apparent, however, that Dovaleh G is in an unusually intense and forthright mood, and he starts talking about his family and childhood in painful detail. At some point this stops being a polished comedy routine and becomes a public breakdown. The reader is in the same position as the members of the audience, and shares their discomfort, unable not to laugh at some of his revelations, but then immediately embarrassed and even ashamed as he plumbs some further depth of self-abasement and self-loathing.

The writing is excellent, and Dovaleh’s psychiatric implosion is caught beautifully. I am definitely glad I read it, but I couldn’t honestly say that I enjoyed it.
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LibraryThing member John
David Grossman
Grossman (1954-) is an Israeli author.. He has written a number of fiction and non-fiction books, and has garnered a long list of literary prizes, the most recent being the International Man Booker for his novel: A Horse Walks into a Bar.

A Horse Walks into a Bar
The jacket blurb
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provides a good summary of the novel: "In a little dive in a small Israeli city, Dov Greenstein, a comedian a bit past his prime, is doing a night of stand-up. In the audience is a district court justice, Avishai Lazar, whom Dov knew as a boy, along with a few others who remember Dov as an awkward, scrawny kid who walked on his hands to confound the neighbourhood bullies. Gradually, as it teeters between hilarity and hysteria, Dov's patter becomes a kind of memoir, taking us back into the terrors of his childhood: we meet his beautiful flower of a mother, a Holocaust survivor in need of constant monitoring, and his punishing father, a striver who had little understanding of his creative son. Finally, recalling his week at a military camp for youth--where Lazar witnessed what would become the central event of Dov's childhood--Dov describes the indescribable while Lazar wrestles with his own part in the comedian's story of loss and survival."

What the summary leaves out is that Dov calls Lazar, after decades of no contact, to ask that Lazar attend the stand-up performance. Lazar is reluctant and then embarrassed when he realises that he had blocked Dov from his memory despite their past friendship as school boys. Lazar agrees to go to the show but asks, "Why do you need me there?" Dov responds, "I want you to look at me. I want you to see me, really see me, and then afterward tell me. Tell you what? What you saw."

Another important character in the story is a very small, handicapped woman in the audience whom Dov does not at first recognise as from his neighbourhood who knew him as a boy. Dov calls her Pitz, short for “Pitzel”, a Yiddish word for a very small person, often a baby or toddler. Her real name is Eurycleia, the name of the family nurse who recognised Odysseus, by a scar on his leg, when he returned in disguise to kill the suitors. Grossman' choice of name is not coincidence. His Eurycleia also guards a truth, the truth of what she knows of Dov as a boy who was kind-hearted, sympathetic, and generous towards a handicapped, abused little girl. This is not how Dov sees, or portrays, himself and Pitz often interjects to contradict the stream of Dov's self-disparaging monologue. She is like Lear's Fool: knowledgeable, perceptive and ready to speak to her truth. This Eurycleia sees the scars on Dov's psyche, but she also sees past them to another person whom she insists on recognising through the increasingly tortured monologue punctuated by slapstick and Dov's extreme facial and physical mobility.

Writing in the Guardian Bookmarks (June 16, 2107) the writer Andrew O'Hagan (on another subject) talked about "people bent out of shape--by their pasts, by their ambitions or by their illusions." This is what we see in the novel. Grossman describes it through Lazar's thoughts: "The radiance of personality...The inner glow. Or the inner darkness. The secret, the tremble of singularity. Everything that lies beyond the words that describe a person, beyond the things that happened to him and the things that went wrong and became warped in him."

In exploring the "tremble of singularity" through the layers of Dov's life, Grossman indivualizes the universal experiences of love, loss, family, growth from childhood to maturity, blasted lives, relationships in family and with friends, and the rippling, generational effects of the past, particularly of past horrors. In so doing, he makes Dov real and speaks to any reader. At the same time Grossman reinforces the realisation that however close one might come to the 'singularity' it is impossible to really know another person and even, perhaps, oneself.

Grossman is good on the mentality of crowds and how they can be manipulated. Watching the reaction of the audience to Dov's early monologue, Lazar thinks, "'This man is not handsome or exciting or attractive but he's figured out how to touch people in exactly the places that turn them into a rabble, into riffraff." At another point, Lazar sees how Dov, "works himself up into a frenzy, and by doing so works them up, too. He inflames himself and ignites them, too. I can't quite understand how it works, but it does. Even I can feel the vibrations in the air, in my body, and I tell myself that maybe it's just hard to remain indifferent when faced with a man so throughly fused with the primal element."

Other themes weave through the novel: how memory is fallible and how it can completely forget or distort points of life; the side effects of one's own experiences and of the actions of others that can shape life; how the constant actions and reactions of life can be like a chess game.

In his very fine novel, To the End of the Land, Grossman tells the story of Ora, who leaves her home in Jerusalem to walk across Israel to Galilee, in order to avoid the "notifiers" from the army who might arrive at any moment to inform her of the death of her son. I was intrigued to see Grossman return to the concept in this novel a few times. When Dov recounts a traumatic experience from his childhood he notes, "It's like nothing can really start until I actually know. Isn't that so?" It is holding at-bay the fact, or even the possibility, of unwelcome knowledge that will turn life onto a very different track, fracture memories and form and manipulate those that will henceforth structure life.

About half-way through the performance, Lazar recalls what it was that Dov had asked him to try to see: "the thing that comes out of a person against his will. The thing that only one person in the world might have." Lazar's conclusion is reached towards the end of the night.

Early in the novel, when Dov is trying to convince Lazar to come to his show, he admits that he is not as excited as he used to be about stand-up; before, it had been "like tight-rope walking for me. At any minute you could crash and burn in front of the whole audience." The tight-rope is a perfect metaphor for this novel. Can Dov hold the interest of his audience as he moves from stand-up (with some pretty fair jokes) to a lacerating examination of his life? And, can Grossman keep the attention of the reader through 200 pages? You have to read the book for the answer on the first tight-rope. On the second, my answer is a resounding yes. This is a complex, layered, gripping novel that works because of Grossman's talent as a writer, and as a keen observer of life.
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LibraryThing member RandyMetcalfe
Jokes, more than one wag has noted, are a great way to ignore the tragic. In David Grossman’s novel that consists in a single lengthy stand-up routine, jokes and tragedy go hand in hand. Dov Greenstein, a 57 year old Israeli comedian, has cajoled his boyhood friend, retired district court justice
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Avishai Lazar, to attend his set just this once and, if possible, give him some notes. Lazar hasn’t seen or spoken to Greenstein since they were 14. He is understandably wary, suspecting a hidden agenda. But nothing could prepare him for the two hours of truth telling (and jokes) that lie ahead. It’s a harrowing experience for all concerned. And maybe not exactly as funny as some of the patrons might have expected.

David Grossman’s writing here is exquisitely controlled, full of nuance and complex pacing. Through Lazars’ perspective we plummet down a helter skelter of emotional twists and turns. At times we empathize with Dov. At times we loathe him. But throughout he is inordinately compelling, a testament to a life lived in the shadow of tragedy. I was enthralled.

Certainly recommended.
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LibraryThing member asxz
Even at 200 pages this is denser and sometimes harsher than any 600-page novel. A comedian has a breakdown on stage. It's heartbreaking and gut-wrenching and painfully drawn out and electrifying all at once. Not an easy read.
LibraryThing member lauralkeet
In this short novel, a stand-up comedian invites a childhood friend to his show, although they haven’t been in contact for years. The guest -- and narrator -- takes in the performance in a rather detached fashion at first, assessing his friend and the audience reaction to his material. There’s
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a tone of desperation in the comedian’s act; he moves in manic fashion around the stage and attempts to interact directly with audience members, especially those who heckle him. It’s a painfully slow train wreck, but then the comedian takes a surprising turn and begins telling of a traumatic childhood experience, after which he lost contact with his friend. The narrative bounces around from the comedian’s on-stage delivery, to flashback, to the friend’s reflections and feelings of guilt, to the audience’s response.

At first, I struggled to stay engaged in this book because the comedian didn’t appeal to me. But the narrative shift transformed him immediately into a sympathetic figure and further defined the friend as an important dramatic player, and I was hooked. I finished this novel with perhaps more questions than answers, which should make for excellent book club discussion.
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LibraryThing member bostonbibliophile
I just... didn't get it. I'm tempted to try the audio based on the reviews here on LibraryThing. I want to get it. I love Grossman's books usually. We'll see. I love his writing and it's great here but the story was hard for me to follow.
LibraryThing member Opinionated
It occurred to me that I had forgotten to review this. Probably because it's not an easy book to review, and may be better in the original Hebrew - the translation uses an Americanised vernacular that doesn't ring true. But also because its hard to review a 200 page monologue without spoilers

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that there is a plot as such. Stand-up comedian Dov Greenstein, has invited an acquaintance from his childhood, now an ex-judge, to watch a performance. Dov and the judge have had no contact since they were kids, so why does he want the judge to watch this performance? And as the routine proceeds its clear that its not just the judge - there are other people here that represent links to the comedian's past.

Because this isn't going to be Dov's usual routine - much to the disappointment of the ordinary punters who have turned up in the hope of a few jokes and some relaxation. Well - they do get some jokes; there a very funny one about shmaltz and curtains, and a good one about a parrot - but what they mainly get is a long confessional about a traumatic event in Dov's childhood that he clearly feels responsibility for, even though its no fault of his. Tonight, he's going to get this off his chest and he needs witnesses to this. That he has so little connection to his witnesses suggests the isolation and misery that this event has caused him

Stylistically, this is all very impressive. Doing a whole novel as a comedy monologue is some feat; but its also hard work at times. Holocaust jokes - if indeed jokes they are, it's hard to tell sometimes - may be entirely appropriate in an Israeli comedy club, I have no idea. But they feel heavy and tasteless in translation. More importantly, its unclear why Dov bears this enormous weight of guilt about an event he could not have prevented. Unless I missed something of course - or it was lost in translation

Its interesting, but for me ultimately unsatisfying. I wouldn't have asked for my money back though - I'd have held on to the grim end of Dov's act, much as I did with this book
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LibraryThing member berthirsch
A curious read, winner of the Booker International Prize. A stand up comedian reviews his life on stage while a childhood friend watches and reflects, too, on his own life.

The pathos behind the humor.

An easy read that provokes one's own reflections on childhood and loss.
LibraryThing member Gittel
That was exhausting, and emotional, and raw. I feel like I need therapy after reading that book. Also, I'm pretty sure I need to start from the beginning and read it all over again, because I'm pretty sure I missed some details. At just under 200 pages, that is reasonable, and maybe necessary.
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is a dense book, with no chapter separations to distract or orient you.
Deserved all the awards it won.
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LibraryThing member sberson
Intermittently entertaining. Unusual format (no chapters).
LibraryThing member starbox
This is one you should read in one (longish) sitting; it's absolutely brilliant, but only works if you immerese yourself completely. Because there are no chapters- the whole thing is one single stand-up comedy session in a club in Netanya, Israel. I must make mention of the excellent translation
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too; the reader never feels it's a foreign text; we absolutely believe in the comic asides, word play and the way the comedian plays with the audience.
And watching the routine is some guy the comic invited along, some face from the past, whose shared history is gradually revealed, and whose own scars from life also become apparent.
But this is Dov's story, as his jokes and witty observations hark back to his childhood, and lead up to a crescendo of heartbreak, the swan song of his performing career, even as the disgruntled hecklers walk out...
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LibraryThing member SqueakyChu
It's hard to know what to say about this novel. It was excruciating to read and left me drained in the end. I followed a friend's advice to read this novel in its entirety and not think about bailing whether or not I wanted to. That's a strange way for someone to recommend a book, isn't it?

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story is of a nightclub comedian who does stand-up comedy in various cities in Israel. This evening he is in Netanya, a place I visited while in Israel. The comedy our protagonist Dovaleh presents gets more and more subdued and personal. Some of the audience can tolerate what is happening on stage and others cannot. What was of most interest to me was one spectator whom Dovaleh invited to his show who had been a friend, albeit not a good one, in his youth.

The story is of psychological pain and family relationships as well as kid-to-kid cruelty. I'm not sure I could recommend this book to a wide readership, but the writing is amazing so I'd direct this book to be read by anyone who can appreciate the power of language. The last third of the book had me mesmerized. I read it non-stop into the night.

I've read other works by David Grossman, bailed on, one and appreciated two others. My thoughts now are that I should go back and try one more time to read the book of his on which I bailed. Then I need to read more of his works. I bet they're amazing.
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LibraryThing member lesleynicol
I did not like this book and did not finish it. I hated the translation into Americanised dialogue and I have never liked "stand-up" comedy.

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